Guy Gagnon, executive director of the Biddeford Housing Authority, holds a letter discovered last week by a construction worker in the convent of the former St. Andre’s Catholic Church in Biddeford. The letter is signed by Sister Nellie Brown, who taught at the school. Pictured lower right is Sister Nellie Brown.

Guy Gagnon, executive director of the Biddeford Housing Authority, holds a letter discovered last week by a construction worker in the convent of the former St. Andre’s Catholic Church in Biddeford. The letter is signed by Sister Nellie Brown, who taught at the school. Pictured lower right is Sister Nellie Brown.

BIDDEFORD — A document discovered by a construction worker at the convent of the former St. Andre’s Catholic Church in Biddeford harkens back to the city’s religious and French-Canadian history.

 

 

An employee of Saco-based PM Construction found the document while working in the convent a week ago Friday, Biddeford Housing Authority Executive Director Guy Gagnon said Thursday.

BHA and Southern Maine Affordable Housing purchased the convent, church and other buildings on the campus, including the rectory and former St. Andre Catholic School, from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland last year. Now, construction is underway on the convent to convert the century-old, 12,000-square-foot building into an affordable senior housing complex, while plans for the rest of the campus – now known as Mission Hill – are also taking shape.

The undated document is two-sided. On one side is a letter typewritten and hand-signed by Sister Nellie Brown, a nun who taught at St. Andre, asking her superior for time off during the summer and also permission to wear a skirt and blouse during the vacation. “I almost passed away last summer from the heat,” she writes.

A document discovered last week by construction crews working in the convent of the former St. Andre’s Catholic Church in Biddeford shows an undated letter written by Sister Nellie Brown, who taught at the school.

A document discovered last week by construction crews working in the convent of the former St. Andre’s Catholic Church in Biddeford shows an undated letter written by Sister Nellie Brown, who taught at the school.

The other side appears to be a typewritten questionnaire filled out by Brown, asking her questions in French, such as “Which grade do you teach?” to which she answered third grade, and “Which classes do you prefer to teach?” to which she answered French, English and social studies.

Brown also alludes to teaching third grade in the letter. “I pray the Lord everyday with my darling little third-graders for you, yours and your many intentions,” she writes.

When asked about Brown, Dave Guthro, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said she was a sister of the Presentation of Mary in Methuen, Massachusetts. A call to that religious congregation turned up much more information on the former St. Andre teacher.

Brown was born in Quebec on March 31, 1907, according to Sister Janice Perrault of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. Her father was from Scotland and her mother from Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

When Brown was just 5 years old and her mother had just given birth to her second child, a son, her father left, Perrault said Thursday. Brown’s mother decided to return to the United States but left young Nellie at an orphanage in Canada, she said.

In 1915, after a few years of moving from foster family to foster family, Brown was adopted by the Cheval family, said Perrault, and “she spent 13 years in (their) loving care.” Brown became a sister of the Presentation of Mary in 1928.

After receiving a degree in teaching, Brown, whose religious name was Claire- Agnes, taught school all her life, said Perrault, and for many years at St. Andre, which opened in 1925 and closed in 1992.

In her retirement, Brown returned to Methuen. She died on May 19, 2004.

“She was a lovely sister,” said Perrault.

Gagnon said he plans to frame the document and display it in the halls of the convent once the complex is finished. When asked if construction crews have turned up any other historical documents, he said some school records were found in the rectory, but nothing as interesting as Brown’s letter.

Although that could change once work begins inside the church, which Gagnon hopes to turn into a youth center or boys and girls club.

“There’ll probably be more once we start working on the church,” he said.

– Staff Writer Angelo J. Verzoni can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]


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